When it comes to spotting the warning signs of developing fiscal problems, the availability of quality information to support decision making is of utmost importance writes Chris Ridley, public sector policy manager at ACCA.
Most countries run with a public sector finance deficit and have done so for many decades, but when does it become unsustainable?
The recent shift towards an integrated global economy has driven the requirement for information to be available on a comparable basis. Gone is the time when national finances can operate in blissful ignorance of conditions overseas. This has resulted in a growing number of nations moving away from country-centric accounting standards towards a common set of international standards for budget and reporting purposes.
International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS) are already widely used and an equivalent set of International Public Sector Accounting Standards (IPSAS) have been developed alongside them. While being similar in many respects, they reflect the unique requirements of the public sector. For example, the focus on public service provision rather than profit making, and the levying of tax and other charges by government to meet the financial commitments created. This is important as the public sector commonly accounts for around one-third of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in the majority of developed countries.
A significant number of countries continue to manage their public sector finances on a cash basis, although an increasing number have adopted full accrual accounting. This has the advantage of looking beyond a simple income and expenditure analysis towards the complete financial position, including the assets and liabilities held. Where this information is consolidated, for example as a set of Whole of Government Accounts (WGA), this provides strategic information on the sustainability of the national fiscal arrangements.
ACCA remains supportive of IPSASs and continues to encourage a move towards the adoption of full accrual rather than cash-only IPSASs given the additional financial information provided. With the move towards IPSAS in many countries, ACCA launched the Certificate in International Public Sector Accounting Standards (Cert IPSAS) at the end of 2014. ACCA’s Cert IPSAS is a flexible, top-up qualification for finance professionals working in / with the public sector. As a globally accessible online course and assessment it meets the needs of individuals and organisations wishing to develop essential working knowledge of IPSAS in an efficient and cost effective way.
Only by improving the information held on public finances and then acting on the issues raised can public services be maintained and improved for the future. Otherwise, as recent events have highlighted, countries could find themselves with severe financial difficulties that might take a generation to resolve.
When it comes to financing sustainable public services, more often than not, there are no quick fixes.